chicken harvesting and such

Since the summer of 2009, I have loved raising “the Bubsters.” When I raised my very first 25 broiler chickens as a practice run, it was for an older couple who nostalgically remembered how farm-fresh, pastured chicken tasted. I raised those first broilers for them specifically so I could learn how to harvest poultry FROM them; I was still at that point a vegetarian, but interested in learning and interested in raising ethical meat. I didn’t really know the controversy behind the cornish cross chickens until later on. I bought 25 chicks and raised them without any premature causalities or problems and then Ron, Mary Lou and I harvested those 25 who, in 2 1/2 months, grew into giant, gorgeous chickens.

I’ve always been sort of a contrary farmer; liking what others dismiss, and proving dissenters wrong. The Cornish Cross chicken has been one of those controversial things. Most everyone who’s raised them says they are lazy, have bad legs and  grow freakishly fast, implying they are not a “real” chicken. They say they are only suitable for the production model they have been genetically/selectively bred for- factory farms. I beg to differ, with 5 years of experience raising these birds on pasture (and heritage cockerels as well) under my belt.

As chicks, the Cornish Cross birds are similar to any other baby chicken. They eat, they scratch in their brooder bedding, they rest and grow. The Cornish Cross chicks do have a stronger desire to eat and keep eating than a heritage chicken, but as babies they all want to eat their fill to fuel their bodies’ development. We feed our chicks lots of snipped up greens right away to supplement their grain based feed, even giving them tufts of grass and weeds with the soil attached to the roots. As soon as they’ve grown enough to handle the outdoor temperatures, they go out on pasture. Both types of chicken baby are equally attracted to dirt and greens, and we find that doing this really helps ensure they will be good grazers when they are introduced to pasture after the brooding stage. They see green and want to eat, peck and scratch in it. They love eating the dirt in the clumps, and I feel this inoculates their immune system with good soil microbes.

The major difference I see with the Cornish Cross compared to heritage birds, is that they more efficiently turn feed (input) into meat (output). And for a farmer buying the feed, this is really important. The heritage breed roosters ate just as much as the Cornish cross and even given an extra three months of grow time (and another 3 months of eating), came out giving us peanuts in weight. Seriously- after 6 months they dressed out at 3 pounds MAX. A Cornish cross chicken dresses out for us at 5-7 lbs, in half that time. They live the same life here, but the heritage breed roosters cost us twice and much in feed and twice the amount of time in labor. The heritage breed cockerels, even sold at $6/lb, actually cost us money instead of bringing in any profit. But that was an experiment, and one we had to do.

We have a pretty solid feel for how harvesting days will go now, and we have set up a pretty ideal harvesting setup in our pavillion area. I love raising these beautiful birds, and while the harvesting is intense, it is an oddly a pleasurable and satisfying experience. Seeing these chickens from day one to the last day is wonderful. Having our customers come get their birds so fresh it’s ridiculous, is a seriously fantastic thing.

The night before, we pulled them in their horse trailer coop up to the area near the pavillion. Since we’d raised them up with our goslings and turkeys, the whole group came along for the ride. They all went the night without food and water so that the broilers wouldn’t be so full of food in various stages of digestion (to make the gutting part cleaner). The morning of harvest, the scalder water was set to heat, the plucker was checked and cleaned out, and the mise en place was assembled; paring knives and the beheading cleaver were sharpened, surfaces of stainless steel tables, coolers and the chilling sinks bleached and wiped down, bowls for organs, buckets for offal and feathers, and bags for the birds themselves were collected and brought to the scene. After our other morning chores were finished and we’d had a huge breakfast of lard-fried hashbrowns, duck eggs and pastured bacon, we set about on our most pressing and important job of the day.

Harvesting animals is not a lighthearted thing to undertake, no matter how many times you’ve experienced and done it. With our poultry, it is much more intense than when our mobile butcher comes, because he does all the work when he comes. When we harvest our birds, it is all on our shoulders, and with poultry, it’s always quite a number of them in the group. Not three pigs or 2 calves. We had 70 broilers to get harvested, cleaned, chilled and bagged up before our customers arrived at 4pm, in just 6 hours. But we did fine, the lovely chickens had no idea what was going on, other than their “mom” (me) was picking them up, holding them tucked in my arms, and taking them over somewhere, and then suddenly, they, as a being, ceased to exist. I thank my husband for being so agile with his cleaver, and I thank these awesome birds for being such beautiful and lovely sources of nourishment.

Our dearest friend Heidi came to visit for weekend of Andrew’s birthday, so I didn’t get any writing done for the past few days. I’m conspiring on a post about keeping one goat and how awesome that is- a total revelation in my life- for real. I got three batches of soap made today, after cleaning 290 duck eggs and candling about 500 eggs, doing chores and such, so Andrew and his dad could focus on getting the roof rafters started. It was a full and wonderful day! We have 16 subscribers so far (thank you thank you!!!) for our “Year of Goatmilk Soap” fundraiser, so I need to make soap while Ms. Goat Girl is giving plenty of milk. MayMay is such a bountiful milk giver, she’s amazing and is so happy to not have any other goats in her way to enjoying her life. Today she’s enjoying browsing on young poplar saplings and goldenrod.

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2 thoughts on “chicken harvesting and such

  1. I’m with you on the Cornish Cross – I use them too. I’ve done the math on the feed for a heritage meat bird and it’s just not doable, not at a price people will pay. I suppose Freedom Rangers are a possibility, but they haven’t reached my part of the world yet, and the fact is, Joel Salatin found when he raised them alongside his Cornish Cross that people still preferred the Cornish – there were some customers who wanted the slower growing bird for other reasons, but for taste, people came back to the chicken they’re used to – which is a point to ponder, I suppose as well. As you mentioned with regard to the cockerels, Salatin had to charge a higher price for his Freedom Rangers, which may have skewed his result a little, but it’s necessary to cover the extra feed cost.

    1. add to the financial problem on the farmer’s back that the poulet rouge or freedom ranger chicks are at least twice the price as cornish cross. I did like the taste of the heritage roosters we raised, but they were too tough at 6 months to use as a roasting bird. I love them poached, and then picked the meat off, but they were the size of pigeons. Very expensive pigeons. These rooster chicks were super cheap, as they are essentially hatchery waste, I think 25 cents a piece? But they cost us SO much to raise for 6 months, it definitely didn’t make financial sense. When we can set up better systems for foraging and self-feeding, it may make a lot of sense to utilize this resource though. Poor little boy layer breed chickens, so many hatched with no where to go.

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